This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
Apparently, our predilection for gossip is built-in and we pay more attention to those nasty things said about people. Unflattering gossip about our friends, family members — even down-and-out movie stars — shapes our visual perception of these individuals and provides a looking glass into how we subconsciously protect ourselves from harm, according to a new study led by a neuroscientist at Northeastern University.
“You are more conscious of a face if you know something bad about that person,” says Distinguished Professor of Psychology Lisa Feldman-Barrett, who led the study. “Gossip,” she says, “has an effect on how the visual system works.”
“The Visual Impact of Gossip” published in the June 17, 2011 edition of the journal Science delves into how people react to faces according to the circumstances surrounding those faces. A team of researchers led Barrett discovered that their test subjects unconsciously paid more attention to the faces of people about whom they had heard in defamatory or disparaging terms. They believe the reason stems from evolution when it was important to know who to avoid and to keep an eye on them. Humans could live in groups and learn from others, not just from direct experience.
Two experiments were performed. In the first, 61 people looked the images of faces. The participants in the study were presented with images of visually neutral faces that were paired with three kinds of gossip: negative (“hit a dog” or “stole money”), positive (“helped an elderly woman cross the street” or “volunteered at an animal shelter”) or neutral (“mailed a letter” or “went shopping”). The faces were then paired with an unrelated image.
The second test saw the researchers using a technique that exploits what’s known as “binocular rivalry”. This presents each eye with a separate image, and allowing the two to compete for attention — only one of the two images will consciously be seen at any given time. The participants were presented with an image of a face in one eye, and a picture of a house in the other. Compared the faces linked to neutral or positive information, those linked with negative gossip were perceived for longer.
As Barrett puts it, “If gossip helps predict who is friend and who is foe without first-hand experience of that person, then this strategy may have evolved to protect us from liars and cheaters. If we see them for longer periods of time, then we can gather more information about their behavior.”
According to Barrett, we don’t interpret the world through the exclusivity of our senses. “Usually we assume that what you see influences what you feel, but here we have a case where what you feel about someone influences what you see visually. This has immediate use for translational science.”
NPR in a May 20/2011 article reports that other scientists have said the results make sense from an evolutionary perspective.
Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. was reported as saying, “I was actually pretty excited to see this paper. For years, people like me have been saying that our intense interest in gossip is not really a character flaw. It’s part of who we are. It’s almost a biological event, and it exists for good evolutionary reasons.”
We return to the phenomenon of humans living in groups. McAndrew explained that people needed to know things who might be a threat and who might be after a particular mate and learning those things through personal experience would have been slow and potentially dangerous. Gossip was a shortcut.
“People who had an intense interest in that — that constantly were monitoring who’s sleeping with who and who’s friends with whom and who you can trust and who you can’t — came out ahead. People who just didn’t care about that stuff got left behind,” he said. A brain which pays special attention to negative gossip makes sense. “If somebody is a competitor or somebody is higher than you in the food chain, you want dirt about them. You want negative information; because that’s the stuff you can exploit to get ahead.” (Gee, this almost sounds like politics!)
Another description of this emphasis on the negative as opposed to the positive is that you’re more likely to survive if you mistakenly respond to a stick as though it were a snake than if you make the opposite error. This may be a concrete example of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Those who remain today are those who always jumped whether it was a stick or a snake. Those who are no longer with us are those who always thought it was a stick.
We love to gossip but to imagine that this behaviour comes from evolution. While empirical evidence shows that we pay more attention to those about whom we’ve heard bad things, the reasoning behind our selective focus makes sense from our survival instinct. Pay attention to what’s bad; avoid getting into trouble.
news at Northeastern – May 20/2011
Gossip triggers defensive response
Science. 2011 Jun 17;332(6036):1446-8. Epub 2011 May 19.
The visual impact of gossip.
Anderson E, Siegel EH, Bliss-Moreau E, Barrett LF.
Department of Psychology, Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115, USA.
[The full text of this study is only available for a fee.]
Gossip is a form of affective information about who is friend and who is foe. We show that gossip does not influence only how a face is evaluated—it affects whether a face is seen in the first place. In two experiments, neutral faces were paired with negative, positive, or neutral gossip and were then presented alone in a binocular rivalry paradigm (faces were presented to one eye, houses to the other). In both studies, faces previously paired with negative (but not positive or neutral) gossip dominated longer in visual consciousness. These findings demonstrate that gossip, as a potent form of social affective learning, can influence vision in a completely top-down manner, independent of the basic structural features of a face.
Lisa Feldman Barrett
1992: Ph.D., Clinical Psychology, University of Waterloo
NPR – May 20/2011
Psst! The Human Brain Is Wired For Gossip by Jon Hamilton
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